Hadar Shemesh is a speech and accent coach, a public speaker and a successful YouTuber with more than 118, 000 subscribers and thousands of students all over the world.
A non-native English speaker herself, she has managed to achieve outstanding results by mastering her pronunciation. For her it’s just a regular thing when people, including native speakers, believe her to be an American. In her interview to Puzzle English, Hadar revealed how to beat the constant fear of speaking English with mistakes and significantly improve pronunciation without practicing all day long.
‘I WASN’T THE BEST STUDENT’
– Today you’re a successful accent trainer and a YouTuber with thousands of subscribers but have you ever been a desperate learner who was ashamed of her English?
– Yes, absolutely. A little less than 20 years ago, I just got out of the army. I’m originally from Tel-Aviv, and I wanted to explore the world. I moved to New York. My level was intermediate, and I struggled with expressing myself and finding confidence in English, and had an Israeli accent. People were always asking me: “Oh, where are you from? Oh, what a cute accent. You sound so exotic,” and I hated it, because I didn’t find it cute or funny.
When I started my theatre studies I had to work on my pronunciation and my accent. For me as an actress, it wasn’t just about improving my pronunciation and not sounding foreign. It was also whether or not I got the job. I didn’t want to always get cast as a foreigner. This process of accent training helped me gain confidence and opened up a lot of channels for me in English. I (have) had a lot of breakthroughs, not only in my pronunciation and my accent, but also in my fluency and my confidence.
I think that where I am now is a result of a successful learning journey and of years of teaching and exploring the ways in which I can simplify English for English learners.
– How much time did you spend on mastering your English pronunciation, and what did you do for it?
– I would like to tell you that I practiced for an hour or two hours every day, the way my speech teacher had asked me to do, but I didn’t. I was not the best student, but I was very specific and motivated about the things that I did do, and that has worked for me. I like quick results, but I also do the work.
In the first year, I practiced my English for at least half an hour every day with the conscious decision of paying attention to my pronunciation, the way other people spoke and how I practiced. I would hear people say something and I would analyze and repeat it in my head and then I say it. And I think that’s what really did a lot of the work.
In the second year of studies, we learned different dialects of English. Breaking down the language and changing sounds revealed a whole new world to me and I think this is when I really mastered my fluency and accent. So, I probably practiced for 20 to 30 minutes a day for almost a year. It wasn't a lot, but I was consistent. I constantly did it and I did things that inspired me. So, I kept it interesting. I think that was the secret. When I get bored with things I just don't do the work.
I had bits and pieces of time when I would practice for like two to three minutes, repeating something that was challenging for me. Practicing my English wasn't something that I did. It was who I was – someone who was very enthusiastic about pronunciation, about English.
– But you were an actress, a creative person with musicality, and probably it was much easier for you to work on your accent. What about ordinary people without special abilities?
– I had a thick accent when I started out. I was not gifted. Some people can pick a dialect and immediately start speaking. I had to work hard, I had to analyze it, practice it alone before I had anything to show. I needed to be prepared. It wasn't very natural, which makes me think that it's all about the right technique and a good enough reason to do the work.
I've been teaching for over 10 years and I see the growth and progress of the people who do the work. They practice and see results 'cause it's all about habits, it's all about pronunciation habits. Changing habits is difficult, but it's possible. You break it down, you practice every single part separately and then you put it back together. It's not simple and I really think that people need to understand that it requires work, but if you're coming into this process willing to do the work, then people see results no matter how aware they are at the beginning. Everyone is musical enough to understand the nuances in pitch or the difference in intonation when it's broken down to them.
I believe that anyone can make a difference and can change with the right technique, and with doing the work. This is the most important thing to remember.
– And now people often take you for a native speaker. How does it usually happen?
– I feel like the tables have turned because when I lived in the US, Americans used to ask me where I’m from because of my Israeli accent. Now when I speak to Americans who come to Israel they also ask me where I’m from, but this time expecting to hear where I’m from in the US because they hear my American accent.
I often get comments on YouTube from British speakers saying to me that Americans (like me) shouldn’t be teaching English because we ruin the pronunciation. I love reminding them in response that English does not belong to them and that I can teach and speak it however I want, oh and by the way - I’m not American.
People who are first exposed to one of my How to Pronounce videos don’t know I’m not a native speaker, and often, after learning with me for a while, they see one of the videos where I talk about my struggles with English and they’re usually mind blown because they were SURE I’m a native speaker. They tell me it gives them hope.
‘RUSSIANS DON'T LIKE TO OPEN THEIR MOUTH’
– In your view, what stops people from having really good English and pronunciation?
– One thing that stops people from succeeding in English and having this breakthrough is themselves. Because English learners are usually very judgmental of themselves. They always compare themselves to who they are in their native tongue and who they are in English and they don't reconcile with the gap. Understanding that it's okay is essential for them to succeed. When you don't have the confidence to speak, when you're terrified and petrified of making mistakes then you don't get practice time and practice time is really all you need. Go to practice your English and you’ll improve your fluency and pronunciation.
– What should we do with the fear that native speakers will instantly catch our grammar mistakes?
– First of all, native speakers make grammar mistakes as well. Second of all, people are not looking for your mistakes when they're speaking to you. People are not waiting to see if you put that ‘s’ in there or not. They're really interested in what you have to say.
When you weigh things ‘making mistakes, sounding uneducated’ versus ‘communicating, helping others and making an impact, where do you want to be? Where do you want to find yourself 10 years from today? Holding yourself back, being quiet all the time, not speaking, and yeah, not making mistakes but as a result, not improving, not finding new opportunities? I think the answer is very clear here. The only thing that is holding you back is yourself. So, you gotta change your thoughts then, you gotta turn them around.
– What are the main struggles of Russian learners in terms of pronunciation?
– There are a few sounds that are challenging for Russian speakers. The first one is the 'r'. The Russian 'r' is produced when the tip of tongue contacts the upper palate while for the American 'r' the tongue doesn’t really touch anything, but it pulls back in the mouth.
It’s interesting because a lot of my Russian students do make that American ‘r’ sound, but it just doesn't sound right, or they put too much effort into it, and that’s because the tongue is not in the right place. So part of the work is to find the right placement of the tongue and to practice it until they’re able to pronounce a strong R without investing too much effort.
Another challenge is when Russian speakers don’t distinguish between similar vowels like sheep-ship, pool-pull or bed-bad. They merge them into the same sound and then different words sound the same.
Lastly, since Russians don’t open the mouth very wide or round their lips much when speaking Russian, it carries over to English and may cause lack of clarity, since the lips and jaw are very active in English. Especially in open vowels like ‘a’ as in ‘cat’ or rounded vowels like ‘food’ ‘boy’ and ‘four’.
– We here have so many examples and memes about the thick Russian accent that sometimes it’s hard to believe that it’s actually possible even to reduce it. Could you share some examples from your practice when Russian speakers have dramatically reduced their accent or even lost it?
– Actually, I have a really good example. I used to work privately with a student, his name was Vladik. When we just started out he was terrified of speaking English. He wouldn’t speak in meetings, he was really frustrated with his pronunciation and to be honest, he had a lot of clarity issues. So, we started working. He was an amazing student. He would practice every day on his way to work, then going back home he would start recording. We worked together for a few months and through all these months I’d see the progress. And he kept saying that his main goal and his dream was to speak English in public. Back then it was: ‘Okay, start speaking in meetings.’ But he had this goal and he was such a diligent student. When we met a few months after - with this work sometimes you need things to sink in and do your work consistently - his pronunciation had improved greatly. We started to talk about intonation, and stress, and rhythm and all of the sudden this speaker came out from, at first, a very shy, very restricted person. Later, he wrote to me that he had presented in front of almost 10,000 people. He works at a tech company and he needed to present. He didn’t avoid it, he took the opportunity and he said that the response was amazing. Look, he still had a slight accent but it didn’t matter, he did so well and people responded. And I think that is what really matters.
Another student, Boris, has just relocated to Silicon Valley. Again, at first, we started with someone who was very self-conscious about giving a speech and then gradually being able to raise money and move there with his family, it’s a totally different ball-game for him right now.
One of the recent examples is Anna – a Ukrainian student who’s never been abroad once. She started her English learning journey a few years ago, and her English, to begin with, was really amazing; she was very fluent, her accent was fantastic. She still had a few nuances in her speech but right now it’s practically gone. She’s been studying with me in my online program ‘Accent Training’ but she’s also a member of our Fluency Challenge online community.
She started uploading videos and her confidence, pronunciation and clarity improved dramatically. Right now she has her own YouTube channel! She’s doing an amazing job there! She inspires other English learners to follow her, to follow their dreams and be passionate about their English learning journey.
Again, a few months back she was hesitant about whether or not making videos to upload even to the fluency group and when she did, the response was so amazing that she was like ‘Hey, I know how to do this!’ Sometimes you just need someone to tell you, ‘You’re great at what you do’, ‘I love speaking to you’, ‘Let’s get to know each other’ and that’s all you need to inspire you to do the work.
WATCHING AND LISTENING IS NOT ENOUGH
– What would you advise to people who want to improve their spoken English?
– You have to understand that listening to, reading or writing English can help you to improve your listening, your reading and writing skills but you have to do things differently to improve your spoken English.
For spoken English, everything needs to be active. If you hear something, you should repeat it. If you read something, you should read it out loud. When you think about something, you should express it with your voice. That’s the first thing that you need to do.
Second, you gotta be curious, motivated and inspired. Find speaking partners. Engage yourself in meaningful conversations. Your English will improve as a result.
This is what’s important. This is what’s going to help you grow, change, and improve. Don’t think about English. Think about what you want to say and make sure that you express it fully and it just happens to be in English.
And, as I’ve said before, always be aware, always be listening to people and be inquisitive – if something is not clear, go check it and then practice it. Understand that it’s not enough to memorize it, it’s not enough to read about things, and to fill out quizzes. It’s not enough.
You gotta feel it, you gotta hear it, you gotta hear yourself saying it. And you gotta train your muscles to use that new word. And not just pronounce the word but say it in context and say it over and over again until you really understand the meaning, until it’s a part of you.
– Could you share some techniques that will improve pronunciation in a short period of time?
– Well, the most important thing is to choose the main challenges for you and work on them first until you master it, following the Pareto principle – do the 20% that’ll get you 80% of the results. For example, the ‘æ’ is important but if your ‘r’ is completely unclear, focus on the ‘r’. Focus on the one thing and work on it until you see results. It has to be very precise. It doesn’t have to be long. You can commit to 10 min every day. So, if the ‘r’ is a challenge, make a list of words with ‘r’ that you use on a regular basis and practice them.
If you wanna practice your ‘th’ make a list of words with ‘th’. Practice with speech recognition apps that will tell you if you pronounce the wrong sound, especially in cases like ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’, ‘beach’ and ‘bitch’ etc.
Do one thing a day but do it almost every day. That’s the only way to see results.
– Some people have been learning English for a long period of time but they still don’t see desirable results. So, they think that they will never improve it. What’s a way out of this situation?
– I think that if you hit a plateau in English, you’ll need to try something different. You’ll need to change things up. Change your methods, your techniques, your teacher, find more people to talk to.
You need to find something that is working for you. There's always a room for more growth, always… It doesn’t matter if you don't live in an English-speaking country.
I feel that when you get stuck it's because you don't have any more awareness. You stop noticing things that hold you back or that advance you. People who get stuck and don't see any new breakthroughs need to start observing their performance, whether it's with recording themselves or making videos of themselves, or finding people to give them very clear feedback.
Do it yourself or find speaking partners. They don’t have to be native speakers. A lot of people think that you only need to learn with native speakers to be able to get real feedback, to see results. But its bias because you first need to speak.
– There is a stereotype that when you speak with non-native speakers you just ‘repeat other peoples’ mistakes’. What would you say about it?
– It’s a misconception. And I’ll tell you why. When we speak a lot of our attention is focused on us: ‘What word to use?’, ‘How to structure the sentence?’, ’How to pronounce it correctly?’ and that’s okay. That’s just how it is.
When you’re speaking, you are not just listening to the other person and repeating their mistakes. There is so much that goes into a meaningful conversation. When you speak to others you’re asked questions, you’re juggling between looking for the right words and creating a coherent sentence, and at the same time, really listening to the other person. You’re really not thinking about their grammar and what you can learn from them as you speak.
Besides native speakers don’t sit and correct you when you speak unless they’re your teachers. So, there isn’t added value there either.
So, first of all, this is exactly what you need to practice, the skill of you speaking and retrieving the words, and you can do it with anyone.
I also find that non-native speakers have a much easier time speaking with other non-native speakers because they don’t feel as judged, they don’t feel someone is looking for their mistakes, they give themselves the permission to communicate and they are like ‘okay, we’re in the same boat’. Again, the most important thing is to find the right partner. If they’re native speakers, amazing. If they’re not, amazing too. Choose someone you wanna talk to no matter what their native tongue is.
- Accent and speaking coach with thousands of students around the world
- Founder of the first American Accent School in Israel
- Founder and CEO of The Accent’s Way LTD
- YouTuber with more than 118 000 subscribers
- Founder of Fluency Challenge Community with over 7000 members
- Motivational and Public speaker
- More than 10 years of teaching
- Nearly 2000 students in Israel
- Google, IBM, General Motors, Wix and Imperva among her clients